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The Raw Truth on Raw Dog Food Diets

The raw food debate is perhaps the most controversial topic within companion animal nutrition today. The divide is stark between those wholly in favour or against, with few fence sitters. We like to think that we treat our pets well, so claims that the food that we feed them is dangerous or incomplete can quickly get heated. 

However, this lack of open-minded discussion can be to the detriment of our pets. This article explores the nutritional benefits and risks of raw pet food diets for dogs and how to make it work if you so choose. 

The 'Raw Food' Movement

The 'Raw Food' movement has been largely propelled by Australian veterinarians Dr Ian Billinghurst and Dr Tom Lonsdale. Dr Billinghurst developed the well known commercial raw food diet BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food). With no similar product on the Australian market, BARF became a commercial success and has spawned similar products in recent years. 


Since the 2010s, raw food diets are now considered a mainstream dietary option available in Australian pet stores and its popularity continues to grow.

So why are people switching over to exclusively raw food diets for their pets? 


There is an intuitive appeal of a 'natural' diet for your animal which is similar to that of their ancestors rather than the grain-heavy commercial options
There is also growing awareness of the ingredients in processed foods and concern about potential harm of certain ingredients in the body. These concerns have grown over the last decade with each new recall of pet food removed from retailer and vet clinic shelves. 
Generally, contemporary consumers are displaying increased skepticism about the purported health benefits of the products they consume and this has also extended to their pets. 

While it is on the rise, the raw food movement has faced opposition. Detractors express concern that it does not provide a complete and balanced diet, it is not safe from microbial contamination and could obstruct, puncture or crack teeth due to bones. Claims that pets should eat as their ancestors did are rubbished as 'unscientific'.

Both sides have merit but are simplistic, ignoring advancements in the field of animal nutrition which mean that primarily meat-based diets can work well but only by applying modern methods including supplementation and knowledge of different ingredients.

Raw Feeding: What is it?

When you think 'raw pet food' or 'home prepared pet food', the first thought that comes to mind can be mince meat, bones or chicken breast in isolation. Although practiced by some pet owners, this is not commercially available and anecdotally does not make up a significant number of consumers. The two main styles in Australia are:


1. Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF)

Offering a mixture of various meats including offal, but also including vegetables, fruits and grains. This style of feeding can include both some cooked and raw components.

2. Raw Meat Based Diet (RMBD)


Offering solely raw ingredients from a range of animal parts such as organs, muscles and bones. This style does NOT include grains. Although it is commercially available, some products are only for supplementation to conventional food options.

The Wild Ancestor 

Similar to the paleo diet, the raw pet food movement draws on the past to make its case. Some of the more brazen proponents have romanticised the diet and lives of wolves prior to their domestication around 16,000 years ago as they supposedly happily subsisted on raw meat from their kills. The logic is compelling: 'if a raw food diet was good for their ancestors, then why not now?' 


This is misleading as the reality is that these animals often did not live long or happy lives. They experienced periods of starvation (including intestinal worm infestation), extremely low immunity, ill health and a life expectancy well below those experienced today. 

The diet of the ancestral dog was also not as uniform as they would have you believe, with animals eating berries and plants where they lacked other options and consuming grains through the digestive tract of their prey.

Animals have also evolved metabolically in response to changes in available food options over generations. Domestication meant that the diet of dogs was increasingly dependent on their owners and their diet could therefore include a wide range of different food scraps, both meat and otherwise. 


This has been acknowledged in scientifically formulated raw food diets which include ingredients to address this metabolic change and to provide a well rounded diet including: eggs, yoghurt, kelp, flaxseed and fish oil

Whilst part of a healthy meal for our pets, these ingredients would have been damaging to their ancestors.

Is Raw better for our pets? 

Historically, cost and availability were the biggest factors in determining what humans fed their dogs to ensure they were fit enough to guard, fight and hunt. Into the late twentieth century, there was a change towards a focus on health which has only intensified.

Whether raw feeding is superior from a health perspective is up for debate. Research remains limited despite heavy discussion and praise or concern is largely based on anecdotes. The key barrier to independent research is funding costs. 


Changing the scientific consensus on raw pet food requires numerous studies finding the same result, but this is challenging with no impartial funding source. The literature on pet nutrition has therefore been dominated by studies funded by pet food manufacturers. As raw food diets have not traditionally been offered by these companies (which have favoured grain-based feed), they have limited interest in investigating its benefits...

The Evidence

There have been a handful of small studies that have conducted feed analysis on home prepared raw food recipes. The studies have sought to identify whether the recipes met the minimum nutritional levels recommended by the National Research Council (NRC), which is a peak scientific advisory body in the United States. 


The studies found the recipes were below the NRC recommended minimum levels in a range of areas (including Vitamins E, D, A, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, cooper and essential fatty acids) and had excessive amounts of saturated fats and protein

However, it is worth noting that commercial pet food do not have to meet the NRC standards either (as minimum nutritional standards in Australia are largely based on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Commercially available raw food can include precise supplementation which may address deficiencies in the home prepared recipes. However, lack of studies means that this claim has not been independently verified. My review of popular brands has found that their ingredient list is promising, but without knowing precise quantities it is difficult to say.

While some could interpret these findings to argue against raw pet food, a great deal of the problem for home prepared diets is with the following of measurements in recipes or whether a recipe is used at all. All recipes included in the studies had lacked precise quantities of each ingredient and were not scientifically formulated by a qualified animal nutritionist. 


To make home prepared raw food work, it requires a recipe which considers a wide range of energy and other nutrient requirements including age, gender, breed, life-stage and lifestyle. It also requires attention to detail in measurement.

Raw food proponents have also claimed that it allows the animal's body to better utilise nutrients by avoiding the cooking process which denatures amino acids. The literature is again inconclusive on whether it is better than 'cooked' ingredients. 

While it is true that the cooking process can denature and alter the molecular shape of proteins, this does not mean it loses all nutritional value.

Certain cooking methods (particularly steaming) can actually enhance the nutritional value of the ingredient in terms of flavonoids and minerals. Cooking ingredients can also improve its digestibility and can minimise the risk of microbial contamination.

The danger of imbalances

Nutritional imbalances can have long-term consequences for your pet and the studies' findings should serve as a warning. 


High fat saturated diets can lead to pancreatitis both acutely and over long periods and feeding excessive offal can lead to vitamin A toxicity (leading to arthritic symptoms). 


On the other hand, insufficient essential fatty acids in the food can be a problem as the body cannot produce them from other sources. 

For dogs, Linoleic acid and Omega 3 acid are important and should be considered in preparing raw food diets. Omega 3 can be found in cold water fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel, but also in flaxseed which is a more accessible and economical source. 

Consulting a qualified animal nutritionist or veterinarian nutritionist is recommended to address these issues in any home prepared recipes. 

Comparison with other food options

Given mixed evidence, you may be thinking "so why take the risk?" Unfortunately commercial dry and wet food has been shown to just as often fail to meet the minimum nutritional levels recommended by the NRC. 


In February 2019, a very popular 'scientific' brand made a global voluntary recall on some of its dog foods due to toxic levels of vitamin D. In a well publicised Australian study [1](Raubenheimer et al, 2016), it was also found that 9/20 of the major commercial feed brands tested did not meet Australian guidelines and did not even match the feed analysis published on the packaging. 



With this 'light touch' regulation having allowed major brands to sell nutritionally deficient food, it is unsurprising that pet owners would be interested in taking their pet's health into their own hands. But this requires pet owners taking on a greater level of responsibility for meeting those nutritional needs. 

Making raw food diets work: variation is key

The appeal of conventional wet and dry food is its ease. Our pets are increasingly caught up in our 'eating on the go' as we quickly drop kibble in the bowl before rushing out the door. However, unlike us, our housebound and often sedentary pets are not in a rush and may benefit from the greater mental and physical enrichment of raw diets.

For those still interested in home-made recipes, we are lucky to be born at a time where there is an array of beneficial cost-effective ingredients available. 

This is important because raw diets should ideally be varied
Variation allows your animal to organically utilise nutrients and minimise the use of supplementation. It also may increase the pet's interest in meals as, unlike humans or even wild animals, access to varied feed supplies is limited. 

To ensure nutritional balance, the diet should be led by the science rather than one's own idea of 'good' and 'bad' ingredients. For example, many raw feeding pet owners would scoff at the idea of adding wholegrain as it is such a large part of commercial pet food.


However, wholegrain is a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way to provide a proportion of your pet's diet. Not only do grains provide carbohydrates, but also an array of vitamins, minerals and protein. When grains are combined, the biological effectiveness of its protein is enhanced bringing a completeness and balance in amino acids. 

As long as the wholegrain is cooked (for starch digestibility), they are completely utilisable by the body. Examples of grains that could be used are oatmeal and millet as they are rich in iron and vitamin E which aids in maintaining healthy skin and coat.

As an animal nutritionist, I advise clients on how to prepare meals themselves for their pets. A simple checklist can assist you in getting started:

RAW FOOD FEEDING CHECKLIST


1. Variation


Give variation in the ingredients you use, particularly meat. Different types of meat have different biological values, with some higher than others. Also consider that certain meats due to preservation methods can interfere with nutrient absorption. For example, sulphur dioxide is used in kangaroo meat preservation which can interfere in thiamine utilisation, leading to potentially dangerous levels of thiamine deficiency. 

2. Be open minded 

It is best practice not to be so restrictive in the ingredients you use and how you use them


As long as the ingredient is not toxic to dogs and is at the right level, then try to incorporate it. The variation may allow for minimal use or reduced dosage of supplementation.

3. If in doubt, ASK


If you are unsure of a formulation or want to create a formulation with exact measurements that cater to your dog's needs, always seek advice from a veterinarian specialised in nutrition or qualified animal nutritionist.

4. One size does NOT fit all


When developing a raw feed, you must always take into account the gender, age of the dog, weight, activity levels, whether de-sexed and any health issues. All these factors significantly influence nutritional requirements.

5. Safe food handling


Safe food handling cannot be overstated. Lax attitudes can lead to bacterial contamination which can cause serious harm to your pet. In Australia, contamination testing is not mandatory for pet meat as for human grade meat, so microbial contamination can occur.

To avoid potential contamination you can:

  • Store meat in the freezer.
  • Cook meat to help eliminate certain bacteria. Steaming is the best option for retaining nutrients. 
  • Cleaning of surfaces and hands. 
  • Consider purchasing human-grade meat for feeding your animals. 

Conclusion
 

Animal nutrition is a science and should therefore be judged based on scientific evidence. However, barriers to conducting independent studies and perceived deficiencies in mainstream options has led many to adopt the raw food diet to improve pet wellbeing. 


Observationally, feeding raw meat to our pets can offer enrichment that conventional diets cannot, if done right. Commercial raw diets may provide an easier way for consumers to adopt this pet food approach, but nutritional adequacies cannot be guaranteed. 

For those with the time and determination, raw food diets are achievable if the checklist if followed under the guidance of a qualified animal nutritionist or veterinarian.

[1] Discrepancy between the composition of some commercial cat foods and their package labelling and suitability for meeting nutritional requirements. 

written by Shiva Greenhalgh, March 2019 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).



About the writer

Shiva Greenhalgh is an animal nutritionist and owner of Sydney Animal Nutrition, which specialises in companion animal nutrition advice.

Shiva holds a Bachelor of Science (Zoology) from Western Sydney University and a Masters in Animal Science (Animal Nutrition) from the University of Sydney.
Shiva is also member of the Nutrition Society of Australia.
In her spare time Shiva volunteers for WIRES, educating the public on native wildlife.

Sydney Animal Nutrition services all of NSW, and can accommodate interstate pet owners. To have a chat about your pets' nutrition or to find out more, please visit www.sydneyanimalnutrition.com.au  or 
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